Monday, 16 July 2018

The University of Western Australia’s Zadko Telescope will be used to capture a rare astronomical event: an “occultation” (eclipse), where Saturn’s largest moon Titan will pass in front of a star.

The event will illuminate the atmosphere on Titan, giving scientists a rare opportunity to examine it in detail. It is expected to take place on Wednesday 18 July 11.09pm Western Australia time and last for about four minutes.

At the same time, the occultation will be recorded by a camera that is mounted at the telescope of the Stratospheric Observatory of Infrared Astronomy’s SOFIA 747 aircraft, a project funded by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre. SOFIA will fly above the clouds over the Pacific Ocean to take images of the event.

UWA Associate Professor David Coward said it was an exciting moment in astronomy for Australia, and pleasing that Western Australia and UWA’s Zadko Telescope had been chosen to help answer deep questions about the Universe.

“UWA’s telescope is the most sensitive in WA to capture the occultation,” Professor Coward said.

However, imaging the phenomena with a special camera mounted at a telescope will be difficult and dependent on the weather.

“Titan is tantalizingly similar to Earth, possessing wind, rivers, lakes and a liquid water ocean. Understanding its atmosphere may help us in the search for life on other planets.”

Karsten Schindler, a SOFIA scientist from the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) based at NASA Ames Research Center, will fly to Perth to observe the event.

The occultation will allow the scientists to better understand if there are changes to Titan’s atmosphere over time.

Mr Schindler said that observing the occultation was the only way of studying changes in Titan's upper atmosphere.

“The last Titan occultation was back in 2003,” he said. “In 2005, NASA’s Cassini's Huygens space probe analysed Titan’s atmosphere, but the data did not match the 2003 findings, fuelling the question of how variable the state of the atmosphere actually is.

“The data from this 2018 occultation will help confirm if Titan’s atmosphere is changing.”

The project is a collaboration between UWA, DSI at the University of Stuttgart, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and NASA.

UWA’s involvement in the mission was made possible by UWA Adjunct Professor Jackie Davidson. The Zadko Telescope is supported by the UWA Faculty of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences and the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for gravitational wave discovery (OzGrav).

Media references

Jess Reid (UWA Media and PR Advisor) (+61 8) 6488 6876


Media Statements — University News
Faculty of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences — School of Physics — Science Matters